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Observations From Day 1 of Patriots Open OTAs

The Patriots’ veterans and rookies took the field today for the first session of organized team activities. It was another low-intensity day in shorts and t-shirts, emphasizing fundamentals and early-down plays. Players started the day with warm-ups and individual drills, followed by an 11-on-11 session and 7-on-7s.

Before the start of practice, head coach Jerod Mayo spoke to the media and provided updates on multiple absences.

Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who tore his ACL in Week 8 last season, is not expected to be on the field for OTAs.

Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who suffered a torn biceps in Week 4, has “been in and out” of the facility. ESPN‘s Mike Reiss speculated that Judon, who will earn just $6.5 million in base salary after a pay bump last offseason, could receive an extension in the near future.

Left guard Cole Strange, who was placed on IR in Week 15 after his second significant lower-body injury of the season, was described as “week by week” or “month by month.” This hints that Strange could start 2024 on the physically unable to perform list.

Other notable absences included linebackers Jahlani Tavai, Anfernee Jennings, and Joshua Uche and nose tackle Davon Godchaux, who has no guaranteed money entering the final year of his deal.

Tavai, Strange, and Bourne all watched practice from the sidelines.

Here are my top takeaways from the rest of today’s practice.

Friendly reminder: all observations should be taken with a grain of salt, as this phase of the offseason is more about growth than results.

Absences

  • ED Matthew Judon
  • WR Kendrick Bourne
  • NT Davon Godchaux
  • LB Jahlani Tavai
  • ED Anfernee Jennings
  • LG Cole Strange
  • OT Zuri Henry

Jacoby Brissett Stands Out Atop QB Depth Chart

Mayo noted before practice that rep splits can change daily, but veterans clearly had a leg up in today’s session. For quarterbacks, that meant Jacoby Brissett, the only passer with experience in Alex Van Pelt’s offense, was clearly atop of the pecking order. Bailey Zappe was typically the next man up, followed by 3rd overall pick Drake Maye and 6th-rounder Joe Milton. 

The quarterbacks began by going through different footwork drills and throwing into nets with different-colored squares. At one point, Van Pelt yelled out a color for each passer to hit after weaving through pads.

Brissett was the most consistently accurate of the group, a trend that continued throughout practice. I only caught one miss from Zappe, while Maye was mostly on target and Milton struggled.

Zappe’s play declined as practice continued, though lack of separation later in practice didn’t help matters. This is his third offense in as many seasons, which is tough for any player. However, with Mayo telling reporters he’d like to enter training camp with three quarterbacks on the roster, he must improve quickly.

Unsurprisingly, Maye and Milton’s ball placement was up and down on underneath throws, though Milton finished strong with a string of completions in 7-on-7 work. Both looked as advertised on their limited downfield opportunities, with the ball sailing effortlessly out of their hands. Maye’s mechanics have drawn criticism among Twitter evaluators, but the quarterback was deliberate in his process as he reworks his fundamentals. From this vantage point, Maye’s footwork looks cleaner than what he showed last season.

Neither rookie received many reps on the day, but Maye notably played with the top unit behind Brissett when the team into two groups late in practice. Mayo said Maye is progressing both on and off the field, noting he’s spotted the quarterback alone in his position room watching tape.

Tyquan Thornton Seizes Starting Role with Bourne Sidelined

With Bourne not on the field, Tyquan Thornton and K.J. Osborn were the Patriots’ top receivers, with DeMario Douglas taking the field in three-receiver sets. Thornton was the primary X receiver, with Osborn as the Z/slot in base groupings. Osborn’s place atop the rotation isn’t surprising, but Thornton has been viewed by many, myself included, as someone fighting for a roster spot. If the speedster can stay healthy and take to improved coaching, his unique skill set could earn him a role in the offense.

Jalen Reagor and Kawaan Baker appeared to be the top backups in two-receiver sets, with second-year receiver Kayshon Boutte and rookie Ja’Lynn Polk also mixing into the top lineup.

I thought Boutte stood out most among the group, but consistency will be key in a crowded receiver room. He made a diving catch on a deep ball from Maye during team drills, and he received praise from assistant wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood during individual work. On the other end of the spectrum, he appeared to get locked up on one target during 7-on-7s and slipped on another.

Lack of separation was a theme in today’s practice. This is understandable for a brand-new offense, but it’s something to monitor as the offseason program progresses.

JuJu Smith-Schuster told reporters after practice that he’s now 100% after being 60% in 2023. While I didn’t think he was as much of a fixture as expected for an experienced veteran, just about every position group featured a heavy rotation, so I wouldn’t look too much into it at this stage.

Offensive Line Rotations Reveal Interesting Shakeups

As expected, left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, center David Andrews, and right tackle Mike Onwenu were staples on the top offensive line. Okorafor acknowledged that his switch back to the left side, where he played in college, will take time, but he looks like the starting group’s most athletic player.

The interior offensive line featured some interesting combinations with Strange out. Sidy Sow, who held down the right guard spot for most of last season, held down his natural spot at left guard. Offseason signing Nick Leverett was typically opposite him at right guard.

This session had several different line combinations, particularly among the backups. That said, the primary second group appeared to be, from left to right, Vederian Lowe, Michael Jordan, Jake Andrews, Atonio Mafi, and Calvin Anderson. Mafi also took quite a few snaps at center, which we didn’t see from him as a rookie. This continues a trend of offensive line coach Scott Peters cross-training players to fill different roles.

Rookies Caedan Wallace and Layden Robinson were also in the mix, with Wallace swapping in at left tackle and Robinson primarily lining up at right guard, where he played at Texas Tech.

Leftovers

  • Drake Maye, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Javon Baker were the last players on the practice field
  • Christian Gonzalez appeared to be in and out of drills but looked like himself
  • Alex Austin was the top left cornerback in team drills, an indication he could be the team’s top outside cornerback behind Gonzalez
  • Christian Barmore mentioned pass rush, four-man fronts, and winning individual matchups as areas of emphasis for the Patriots’ defense under new coordinator DeMarcus Covington
  • After his media availability, JuJu Smith-Schuster began running off the field and yelled to reporters: “Wait till you see the locker room. The vibes are way better.”
  • Cornerback Marcus Jones told reporters he’s “100%” this season after landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in 2023
  • The Patriots could enter training camp with three quarterbacks, with Mayo telling reporters,
    “Once we get to training camp, that’s real football. So out here in the spring, we’ll rock with four (quarterbacks), but as soon as we get to training camp…you’re gonna get to start paring down the roster.”
Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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